Thursday, October 23, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #9: Children of the Damned

Anton M. Leader’s ‘Children of the Damned’ continues the rigorous science vs. brute force debate established in Wolf Rilla’s ‘Village of the Damned’, but in all other respects this is a sequel that utterly up-ends its predecessor.

One plays out against the quaint cottages and open fields of its rural setting, the other in the cramped and sunless streets of London. One confines its drama to country houses and spic-and-span cottages, the other to grimy bedsits and abandoned buildings. One has a pragmatic retired professor as its protagonist, the other a younger impassioned psychoanalyst. One has a group of almost identical children, the other children of different nationalities. One implies that these children are the progeny of something alien, the other that they were virgin births.

And, crucially, one casts its otherworldly children firmly as villains, the other as misunderstood innocents.

Perhaps ‘Children of the Damned’ is best approached not as a sequel but a flipside or a reinterpretation. The film starts in media res with six children – variously Chinese, Nigerian, Russian, Indian, American and English – brought together for study by a UNESCO committee on child development. Tom Llewellyn (Ian Hendry) and David Neville (Alan Badel), respectively a psychologist and a geneticist, are researching the background to the English lad, Paul (Clive Powell). Their access is hampered by his mother who is hysterical and adamant that she has no business having a son since no man has ever touched her. Tom and David, in something of a sweeping generalisation, correlate her profession as photographer’s model with licentiousness and initially disbelieve her story.

Later, following an unfortunately (and mildly suspicious) road accident, Paul enters the care of his sympathetic aunt, Susan (Barbara Ferris). The children, swiftly cohering into a telepathic unit, employ mind control over Susan to assist them take shelter in a disused church. So far, so ‘Village of the Damned’. But it soon becomes apparent that Paul and his comrades are only using their mental powers when threatened, and that their coercion of Susan is merely a temporary requirement and they mean her no harm. While still crossing a certain line in terms of social norms, their behaviour is far removed from the show of force that the children of Midwich delighted in reiterating in the first movie.

A crucial narrative development has Tom initially convince the children to leave the church and report to their nations’ embassies. The callous political brinkmanship of the adult world immediately becomes apparent: their ambassadors welcome them delightedly, keen to remodel them as weapons. Telekinetics prized for their use in some potential psychic war. It can only be speculated how much inspiration ‘Children of the Damned’ had on ‘Scanners’. As with ‘Village of the Damned’, there’s a sense of the film as pre-Cronenberg Cronenberg. If anything, Cronenberg’s visceral disgust at the human condition and his major theme of God as an absent landlord is even stronger in ‘Children of the Damned’.

Naturally, the children respond to threat by using their powers against it and, several dead ambassadors later, they’re back at the church. The house of God as social realist Alamo. Yes, that’s a distinction worth emphasizing: if ‘Village’ uses its sleepy rural setting as an effective counterpoint to its fantastical concepts, then ‘Children’ is sci-fi dystopia as kitchen sink drama.

‘Children of the Damned’ uses a broader canvas and asks thornier questions than ‘Village’. It’s 15 minutes longer yet spans a shorter timeline and contains arguably less incident. It lacks the precise craftsmanship of Wolf Rilla’s direction while John Briley’s script takes longer to debate its big themes than Stirling Silliphant’s. Together, they complement, offset and challenge each other. ‘Village’ is arguably the more superbly crafted work, ‘Children’ the more intellectually satisfying.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #8: Village of the Damned

John Wyndham’s particular genius was for welding gnarly sci-fi concepts to an ineffably English worldview. And nowhere was this more fully expressed than in the rural setting of ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’.

By a strange quirk, Englishness in cinema is often more accurately rendered by filmmakers of other nationalities: Joseph Losey (American: ‘The Servant’, ‘Accident’), Alberto Cavalcanti (Brazilian: ‘Went the Day Well?’, ‘Nicholas Nickleby’), or the quintessential Englishness of Michael Powell as filtered through the Hungarian √©migr√© sensibility (‘A Canterbury Tale’, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’).

‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ was filmed as ‘Village of the Damned’, adapted by American screenwriter Stirling Silliphant and helmed by German director Wolf Rilla. The result is a perfect depiction of stereotypical English stoicism, resilience and pragmatism, skewed just enough by a foreign perspective to emerge as something genuinely unsettling.

The film starts with everyone in the village of Midwich falling unconscious simultaneously. With the confident dexterity of a cardsharp knowing he’s got your attention from the outset, Rilla deals out images of prostrate bodies in the middle of narrow lanes, sinks overflowing, irons burning through clothes, an LP catching on a phonogram, the same note playing over and over, a tractor trundling in circles, its driver slumped over the wheel. Cosy, comfortable, English settings and images – but creepily subverted.

Next up, a self-contained sequence where the military establish a cordon around Midwich and attempt ingress, first with a caged bird, then with a human volunteer. Rilla builds tension with the steady accretion of detail, playing off the by-the-book stiff-upper-lip rationale of the top brass against the slow dawning realisation that something is very wrong.

When Midwich re-awakes and the strange forcefield that seems to have cloaked the village disappears, the film makes its one concession to prudery and elides the mass pregnancy of all female citizens of child-bearing age (speculations on xenogenesis, i.e. impregnation by an alien entity, inform the novel) into a quick sequence of visits to the village’s increasingly harassed and befuddled doctor. The film then deals out another quick series of elisions, depicting the group of disconcerting similar children first preternaturally gifted infants and then as mini-adults, far more advanced in years than their age allows for. They go everywhere en masse. Their manner is aloof. There isn’t a trace of emotion in their behaviour.

Professor Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders), father to one of these uber-children, begins a study of them, keeping in close contact with his brother-in-law (Michael Gwynn) who was one of the military personnel in the opening scenes. Zellaby blags his way onto a British Intelligence think tank and a fraught series of discussions hammer through the speculative discourses of Wyndham’s novel with an economy that does Silliphant proud as a writer. The upshot is, basically, that Zellaby wants to learn from the children in order to understand them, while the military, concerned about similar phenomena in isolated areas across the globe, do what military types in movies of any genre do best and starting figuring out the best way of destroying the problem.

The science vs. brute force dialogue is stamped across the film’s tense 77-minute running time, and Rilla milks the stand-off for all it’s worth, Zellaby desperately securing a facility in which to study the children before gradually realising that the dynamic is actually the other way round, and that his benefaction might count for nothing when their use for him is exhausted.

‘Village of the Damned’ simmers with the threat of violence, either against the children or, increasingly, by them. Their telekinetic disposal of a grief-crazed shotgun-wielding villager, whose brother’s death they’d earlier caused, is all the nastier to watch because of the sense of complete detachment. In the best scenes, Rilla simply observes the children and the result is like watching a Cronenberg film made a decade and a half before Cronenberg got started.

In some aspects ‘Village of the Damned’ is dated, and – putting it tactfully – not all of the performances are of Sanders’s calibre, but it remains an intelligent, suspenseful chiller that sets out to challenge and unnerve and does so with clinical efficiency.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #7: John Dies at the End

I’ve never read David Wong’s novel, or its just-as-wonderfully-titled sequel ‘This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It’, but I have it on good authority that it’s a madcap romp through multifarious horror genre tropes that manages to be deadpan sarcastic even as its narrative becomes increasingly ludicrous.

Perfect fit for Don Coscarelli, then.

And indeed Coscarelli delivers a film of such no-budget demented inventiveness that it makes his earlier ‘Bubba Ho Tep’ look as staid and austere as your average Strindberg play.

Opening with the old perceptional hook of whether an axe that beheaded someone and subsequently has its handle and then its blade replaced can be displayed as the same axe – only using a neo-Nazi zombie and some weird otherworldly kind of slug creature by way of illustration – ‘John Dies at the End’ continues in equally discursive fashion as David (Chase Williamson) narrates to seedy journalist Arnie (Paul Giamatti) the events which led to him and eponymous best bud John (Rob Mayes) damn near brokering the end of the world.

To say what ensues is a shaggy dog story is to make the hitherto shaggiest of dogs look virtual bald by comparison. David, possessed of a number of preternatural abilities including telepathy, precognition and astral projection, spends a decent chunk of the running time recapping how he and John found themselves working as … well … I would say ghostbusters, but Vengler and co would have to spend a lot of time on Cheech and Chong’s couch in order to approximate anything like David and John’s approach to the craft. 

Long story short, it’s exposure to a drug nicknamed “soy sauce” – a narcotic that’s more H.P. Lovecraft than ‘Breaking Bad’ – that imbues them with their abilities. During their misadventures, David ends up babysitting a labrador that belongs to his crush, the winsome Amy (Fabianne Therese), and what the drug does to the dog would make the judges at Crufts doubt their sanity. This established, we segue into the real story of David and John’s race against the clock to uncover the truth behind a spate mysterious deaths and the existence of a oddball cult who worship a Cthulu-like entity, all the while evading the psychotic interventions of a Bible-bashing detective.

It’s a story that encompasses a meat demon, a womanising televangelist, a church full of half naked people wearing freaky masks, a Rastafarian psychic who knows the date the first nuclear missile will land on America (and still has a chuckle about it), a decidedly literal case of phantom limb syndrome, the worst garage band ever to get their hands on an amplifier, a cartoon in which human sacrifices are made to giant spiders, and the most juvenile visual joke about a doorknob ever committed to film.

Oh, and there’s a deus ex machina involving a pick-up truck and the aforesaid dog. In fact, the dog is nothing short of heroic. The dog is called Bark Lee, he plays himself, and his performance is magnificent.

Working with a budget that didn’t cast its shadow quite as far as million, Coscarelli delivers a solidly-made film with acceptable effects, good cinematography and a cluster of likeable performances. Giamatti, who seems to be coasting of late, has a hell of a lot of fun; Mayes and Williamson are absolutely spot-on and play off each other beautifully, and Clancy Brown is terrific as televangelist Marconi.

‘John Dies at the End’ is utterly bonkers. It defies any real critical framework in terms of appraisal, firing off wild scattershot broadsides at genre, convention and audience expectation – beginning with the title and even ricocheting through the end credits. It’s a film that’s rated WTF and best viewed in SuperSpliffVision. It’d take an utter dullard not to get ecstatically and crazily lost in its labyrinth of absurdities.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #6: The Thing (2011)

There’s an awkwardness to Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s ‘The Thing’ that is immediately discernible from its title, which suggests a remake of John Carpenter’s bona fide classic (in my humble opinion, still the greatest horror movie ever made), which is in itself a remake of Howard Hawks’s ‘The Thing from Another World’, and all of them to a greater or lesser degree inspired by John W Campbell Jr’s novella ‘Who Goes There?’ 

But ‘The Thing’ (2011 version) – hereinafter referred to as ‘TT11’ to prevent repetitive strain injury – is actually a prequel. Only it adheres very explicitly to Carpenter’s film … except when it retro-engineers itself to fill in the lacunae … only the lacunae are there in Carpenter’s film to provide a visceral undertone of irony. Let’s face it: the trip to the ruined Norwegian base gives us just enough clues to realise that what happened there is just about to kick off at the American base.

And therein lies the problem. If ‘The Thing’ is about how an assimilative alien being decimates a research station full of big hairy Americans, then a prequel must necessarily depict how an assimilative alien being decimates a research station full of big hairy Scandinavians in almost exactly the same manner. No, wait, backtrack a minute: a research station full of big hairy Scandinavians and one very attractive American.

‘TT11’ starts with palaeontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) recruited by prissy scientist Dr Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) to fly out to the Norwegian base at a moment’s notice to give her professional opinion on something rather unclassifiable that they’ve just retrieved from the ice; and before you can say “obvious sop to US audiences” the winsome Ms Winstead is acting as a surrogate for the audience as her oddly-vowelled paymasters release the aforementioned alien being from its frosty hibernation and … well, you’ve seen the vastly superior Carpenter film, so you know the rest.

It’s astounding how obsessively ‘TT11’ clings to ‘The Thing’, right down to the big “let’s use a blood test to determine who’s infected” sequence. Granted, ‘TT11’ contrives a way to make the blood test not viable, and the alternative at least suggests a smidgin of originality, but the scene pays off so routinely that it squanders the opportunity to do something different and surprising with the material.

Perhaps the only truly interesting thing ‘TT11’ does is at the very end. With Kate posited as final girl from the outset, the film ends on a note that initially seems like just another sop to its predominantly homeland audience. Except that it communicates a single, devious implication that works its way into your consciousness a few minutes after the end credits have rolled. A decent touch, but too little too late. Ultimately, ‘TT11’ is reasonably well-made film, rich in attention to detail, that has no reason whatsoever to exist.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #5: Toy Story of Terror

Woody (Tom Hanks) and the gang are passing the time during a cross-country drive. The trunk of a car can be a dark and claustrophobic place so they distract themselves by watching a horror movie on a laptop. Which is kind of like an ophidiophobe chilling out with ‘Snakes on a Plane’. And it doesn’t help that Mr Pricklepants (Timothy Dalton) – who really ought to be called Mr Smartypants – keeps talking over the film, giving a running commentary on horror movie tropes and how the narrative plays out. When a flat tyre strands them at a dreary and, more to the point, isolated motel, Mr Pricklepants is in his element, confidently predicting that before too much longer the group will be split up and “picked off one by one”.

Confidently and accurately.

‘Toy Story of Terror’ may only be a short, but it’s as rich in ideas, inventiveness and entertainment as any of its feature-length brethren. While presenting a mildly scary tale for kids, the litany of horror genre lore and specific movie references that it throws out ensure its no less entertaining for adults. Indeed, the unforced panache with which its homages are staged – be it a shower curtain placed centrally in a tense cat-and-mouse scene or Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) declaring “I’ll be right back” – is a delight. It even teases the knowing adult audience with the possibility of Jessie the Cowgirl (Joan Cusack) as final girl.

Speaking of whom, the film neatly keys into its predecessors, relying on Jessie’s backstory from ‘Toy Story 2’ to generate tension: her claustrophobia when she’s accidentally locked in a tool box in an early scene foreshadows her requirement to be sealed in a box during the denouement when she has to … Ah, but that would be telling. Moreover, the solidarity of the toys holding hands as they slide inexorably towards the furnace at the end of ‘Toy Story 3’ is subverted as the group are split up during the genuinely tense middle section. Likewise, a sequence of captivity and attempted escape also echoes that instalment.

How scary is it? Well, there’s nothing that reaches the clammy heights of the furnace set-piece, or even the evil playhouse that is Sid’s bedroom in ‘Toy Story’. Nor is there anything as squirmily tense as the airport sequence in ‘Toy Story 2’. But as a comedy-horror, it works brilliantly. It works because, like the absolute best of Pixar, it’s been made with care and wit and attention to detail. Director Angus MacLane, who co-wrote it with Pixar stalwart Andrew Stanton, understand the horror genre; they know when to spoof and when to scare.

Am I making it sound like ‘Toy Story Does Scream’? Then so be it, but with the caveat that ‘Toy Story of Terror’ is funnier, cleverer and more sophisticated than ‘Scream’ – and, at 21 minutes, mercifully shorter.

Friday, October 10, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #4: Blood: the Last Vampire

Chris Nahon’s visceral pop art opus sets itself the challenge of melding a ‘Kwaidan’-style backstory of a peaceful villager’s transformation into a vampire hunter with a 1970s set main plot that mixes tradition, militarism and a Japanese/American culture clash melee of frenetic and hyper-stylized action.

Wait a minute, what the fuck am I talking about? ‘Blood: the Last Vampire’ is a hopeless bit of nonsense about a hot Japanese girl in a sailor suit who despatches vampires with a bloody big sword.

Or, only slightly expanded from the above synopsis, ‘Blood: the Last Vampire’ is about Saya (Gianna Jun), a three-hundred year old vampire killer (the longevity is due to the fact that she’s a vampire herself) who looks like she’s still in high school. Which is the perfect cover for her handler Michael Harrison (Liam Cunningham) to send her to a military academy on a US base in Toyko in the early 70s. Here she joins forces with the base commander’s rebellious daughter Alice (Allison Miller) while the shadowy organisation she works for – the Council – tears itself apart in a miasma of intrigue and treachery. Meanwhile, Saya’s centuries old nemesis, a demon named Onigen, waits in the wings.

The plot is at once stupidly simple and nonsensically overcomplicated, with the machinations of the Council ramped up to almost court-of-the-Borgias intensity for no other reason than to effect a Saya-goes-on-the-run plot point. The stakes are either world-shatteringly important or non-existent, depending on what scene you’re watching and how many proscribed substances you imbibed prior to watching the film.

What it all boils down to, though, is the entertainment value in watching a schoolgirl with a sword take down legions of the undead. Yet even with so basic an aesthetic driving it, ‘Blood: the Last Vampire’ falters. Jun certainly looks the part and she has a thousand yard stare that could make the entire cast of ‘Sons of Anarchy’ think twice about it, but her facility in the action sequences is painfully limited, and the more extended an intricate the action gets, the more desperate the editing techniques to disguise it. There’s so much of that speed-up-slow-down-speed-up nonsense that you’d swear you were watching a Guy Ritchie film on crack. Elsewhere, a scene where Onigen morphs from human form to demon and leads Saya on a rain-swept roof chase, the latter crashing through neon signs in pursuit, should have been edge-of-the-seat awesome … except that the neon sign looks like it was done in crayon by a five-year-old with no hand-eye co-ordination and Onigen resembles nothing more than a morbidly deformed wine gum.

The 1970s setting is completely arbitrary, the period evocation never convinces and the music cues are all over the place. A title card telling us we’re on an American base in 1970 is immediately superseded by a shot of some kids grooving in a corridor to Chuck Berry’s ‘You Never Can Tell’ (a big hit in 1964 that didn’t enter the charts again until Emmylou Harris covered it in 1978). The performances are uniformly turgid with even, sad to say, Liam Cunningham phoning it in. The action, as noted above, is ruined by the way it’s edited, and the gouts of CGI blood which accompany every swing of Saya’s sword look less like blood than pencilled-in motion capture of a carton of Ribena exploding.

All in all, it’s utterly dreadful, but dreadful in a way that’s strangely compelling. It’s a car-crash of a movie – mangled, broken, almost unrecognisable as an example of the form. You know you should show some common decency and look away but … you … just … can’t.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #3: Scream, Blacula, Scream

Whereas ‘Blacula’ is a surprisingly faithful, if not adaptation, then reconsideration of Bram Stoker’s novel, ‘Scream, Blacula, Scream’ jettisons any connection with the source material. And the result is a mixed bag. 

With cursed nobleman and reluctant bloodsucker Mamuwalde (William Marshall) decomposing at the end of the first film courtesy of a self-inflicted vampire/sunlight interface, director Bob Kelljan and no less than three scripters turn to voodoo to resurrect him. The film begins with a dying voodoo matriarch choosing diligent apprentice Lisa (Pam Grier) as her successor over her hot-tempered son Willis (Richard Lawson). Willis responds by acquiring Mamuwalde’s bones, intent on conjuring the vampire as a servant who will do his bidding and help secure what he sees as his rightful heritage. Predictably, this plan goes tits up and it’s Willis who finds himself in servitude to Mamuwalde.

In short order, Mamuwalde puts together a small army of the undead, attends a swinging party hosted by ex-cop and antiques collector Carter (John Mitchell) and meets Lisa. Looking at some African pieces that Carter is curating for a university, Mamuwalde recognises some jewellery that belonged to his long-dead wife Nuva. As with the first film, it is Mamuwalde’s romantic nostalgia for his lost love that humanises him but instead of seeking a surrogate, here he enlists Lisa’s help to lift the curse.

However, nothing in life (or in blaxploitation/horror crossovers) goes to plan, and Carter’s still-on-the-force colleague Lieutenant Dunlop (Michael Conrad) finds himself investigating several suspicious deaths, all with the same MO: puncture marks on the skin, and complete exsanguination. Misreading the face-palmingly obvious clues, he correlates the puncture marks with snakebites and snakes with voodoo and lays a strip for Willis’s pad. And thus the race against time for Lisa to complete the ritual before Dunlop and his boys lay siege.

Except that “race against time” suggests an urgency that ‘Scream, Blacula, Scream’ just doesn’t have. The rivalry for the heirdom of the voodoo clan establishes tension in the pre-credits scene, but Mamuwalde’s immediate dominance of Willis curtails that particular plot thread. Dunlop’s investigation, which counterpoints the main story, is so plodding and shambolic he makes Columbo look like Dirty Harry. And as for said main plot - Mamuwalde’s courtship of Lisa to release him from his curse – there is little dramatic or romantic dynamic in play. Consequently, much of the film consists of unconnected scenes lurching disjointedly towards a fairly small-scale denouement.

On the plus side, Marshall is every bit as commanding as he was in the original and his contemptuous disposal of a couple of jive-ass pimps is a moment to savour. Grier, too, is always worth watching, even though the script gives her a grand total of two pro-active moments, neither of which happen till the last ten minutes. The absolute best element of film, though, is the way it filters voodoo through vampire mythology and manages to play what is frankly a bonkers conceit with utter straight-faced bravado.

‘Scream, Blacula, Scream’ is to be applauded for not simply repeating its predecessor’s one-off concept of taking a timeless classic and putting a specific cultural spin on it; for instead striving towards a narrative and a direction that an entirely its own. Even if it doesn’t quite hold together as tightly ‘Blacula’, it gathers up a small collection of interesting ideas and runs pell-mell with them, even if some of them get dropped along the way.